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Travel
August 18, 2018

Home Sweet Hutong

Settling into her new life in Beijing, Mithila Phadke is constantly surprised by the hidden secrets of its lesser-known winding alleys and the many stories they hold. She writes about how a geographical shift led her to fuel her creative juices

I wasn’t supposed to return to Beijing.

The day I landed at China’s Ningbo Lishe International Airport in Ningbo, the southern city where my father had been living as an expat for over a decade now, my itinerary had been pretty set. I’d stay with dad for a few days; then set off on a solo backpacking trip across the country — Beijing for a week, followed by Chengdu, Guilin, and then some days of trekking at Mount Huangshan (Yellow Mountain). After three weeks, I’d be on my way back to Ningbo, and from there take my flight back home to Mumbai.

Except, that I went right back to Beijing for my last week in China, flying all the way to the other side of the country. I changed my travel plans and paid way too much for an extremely unnecessary detour but there I was, back in the capital, because it had captivated me and I could not, would not, head home without getting to know Beijing better, just a little bit more, even if it was for just a few more days.

It involved none of the tourist attractions — I had already ticked every one of those off my list in my first week there. I had trekked up the majestic Great Wall, wandered through the magnificence of the Forbidden City — also known as the Palace Museum — and drunk a can of the local Yanjing beer while watching the sunset at Jingshan Park next door. I had climbed all the way to its summit for what was perhaps the best view of Beijing — impossibly vast and intricate all at the same time. The Summer Palace — that decadent royal playground, lush with lakes and greenery. And the 798 Art District — acres and acres of a repurposed Mao-era warehouse space, now filled with some of the city’s best galleries and open-air installations, and walls splashed with graffiti art around every corner, a gorgeous maze that you could happily get lost in. I returned to none of those.

It turned out to be the most memorable part of the trip.

The second time around, I had sought out the hutongs — those ancient, winding alleys typical of the capital, so many of which dated as far back as the Yuan dynasty. For all the grandeur of its many monuments, hutongs were where Beijing hid a lot of its charm, and much of what defined its character. I spent hours walking around in them, doing nothing very special by many standards really, but they were what made me decide I had to return to Beijing — not as a tourist, but as a resident. Six months later, I moved there.

And as I found my feet in a new city, and got to know my new home better, I found myself looking inward. Inward into what made Beijing special, inward into the hutongs again. The more I explored them, the more they seemed to have for me, and they led me to the heart of the city like nothing else had.

Nanluoguxiang, Beixinqiao Santiao and Gulou Dajie — the hutongs criss-crossing each of these neighbourhoods had me stumbling onto new finds every time. Hole-in-the-wall dumpling shops that stayed open well into the wee hours, rows of steamers filled with juicy pork-and-scallion jiaozi (a type of Chinese dumpling). Curio shops and indie music stores, bookshops with their resident cats that judged what you were reading. Groups of old Beijingers huddled around tables, playing xiangqi (Chinese chess) or mahjong (a tile-based game). Delivery carts constantly trundling up and down, winding their way past pocket-sized hutong bars, mom-and-pop stores, noisily haggling with customers and those of us trying to make the most of that perfect slice of weather on April afternoons, which always upped and went before you fully got to enjoy it. Chugging an ice-cold Yanjing, waiting at a cart while the vendor rustled up the glorious ‘egg-pancake’ that is a jianbing, or sitting at a cafe writing, while stopping way too frequently to people-watch.

I wrote a lot in the hutongs, right from my first few weeks of living here. The vividness and rhythm, and the pockets of surprises, no matter how much I thought I knew them, fed into my writing, nourished it. The further I got to know them — and my new home by extension — the more I was driven to look for the less-apparent stories, burrow into the intricacies rather than paint the city with broad brushstrokes.

That’s a mistake you’re frequently tempted to make with China. It’s vast, overwhelming and often generalised. When I began writing about aspects of the country — whether it was about its culinary traditions, the fast-changing urban landscape, or even personal essays on my own struggles with race and gender issues here — I had to very quickly discard former assumptions and dig deeper. The government censorship meant that the city’s artistes — musicians, painters, writers — found new outlets, creating a vibrant underground scene that thrived in the hutongs. From poetry readings held in Ball House — a cavernous space that resembled a dowager queen’s attic — to local indie bands that found their crowds at the smoky Temple Bar where all the action was.

The bustling energy of the hutongs reminded me of Mumbai, especially the Fort area where I worked. I remember taking long walks in the late afternoons — that slice of time when there was a brief lull in the newsroom. I’d weave my way past the dosa carts and the roadside watch repair shops, Cafe Excelsior and the JJ (Sir Jamshedjee Jeejeebhoy) School of Art campus, the hot aloo-cheese toastie with sev sprinkled on top, from the sandwich wallah outside Xavier’s. The grizzled and gorgeous structure of the CST (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus) railway station was always round a corner. The quiet backstreets lined with perhaps the city’s last few trees. Everything I passed seemed like it had always been around, like there was never a time when it had not existed. I knew it inside out and yet I’d still spot a little something new every time.

I felt that way about the hutongs, with their tucked-away dumpling shops, and the cafes with the judgemental cats and that weird arcade with its window display of a tub filled with coloured balls and a giant snoozing stuffed tiger. Or that gent who actually trained crickets (yes, that’s right) to fight in big-money tournaments. Or the wizened collectors of Mao memorabilia and Communist Party propaganda posters. Much like Mumbai, Beijing was a city built by migrants. Nothing made this more apparent than the Chinese New Year holidays, when the migrant workers returned home to celebrate with family, and Beijing looked empty for days.

The fact that the government has been on a mission to control Beijing’s population and crack down on hutong businesses has only made it more necessary that I see as much of them as possible. Every other week, a beloved spot shuts down, and suddenly you need to reorient yourself all over again. It reminds me of the way friendships and relationships play out in Beijing; the high expat turnover means people you knew for months suddenly move away. Your life is constantly is flux, and for me, so is my writing — it makes me look for newer stories, prompted by every new arrival.

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